Tanztheater des Staatstheaters Darmstadt
National Theater, Taipei; March 12, 2010
Simone Deriu and László Kocsis in Lin Mei-hong's Schwanengesang. Photo Barbara Aumüller.jpg [ 36.64 KiB | Viewed 4931 times ]
Despite being born and bred in Yilan in the north-east of the island, and achieving considerable international success, Lin Mei-hong (林美虹) is not a choreographer whose name is to the forefront of most Taiwanese dance-goers minds. That is not all that surprising. She left Taiwan at 16 to study in Rome, and later in Essen with Pina Bausch. Almost all of her subsequent achievements as a dancer, director and choreographer have also all been in Europe. But things should change following her return home with Tanztheater Darmstadt, where she has been artistic director since 2004, and the Asian premiere of her “Schwanengesang” (Swansong).
The work was inspired by the Belgian poet George Rodenbach’s 1892 symbolic short story Bruges-la-Morte, which tells the story of Hugues Viane’s obsession with his dead wife, Marie. Following her death he takes refuge in Bruges, a city similarly lost in the beauties of the past and whose gloomy, moody atmosphere mirrors his mourning, where he sees and becomes infatuated with dancer Mariette, who has the misfortune to be his wife’s double.
Lin does tell the story, but rather than presenting a detailed dance-dramatisation of the novel, she explores the mind of the distressed widower and his psychological condition. Often with penetrating force she focuses in on six different scenes in his struggle, painting an often haunting picture of love, grief and murder.
The opening, during which Marie, danced by Andressa Miyazato, dies from a terminal illness, suggests nothing of the drama and outstanding dance theatre to come. But the tempo ups considerably as Simone Deriu as Hugo recalls many episodes from their life together. As he sits, desolate, head in hands, a host of tender, passionate and sometimes desperate situations are represented simultaneously by multiple Hugo and Maries.
Although his maid, Barbe, slowly comes to love Hugo, she doesn’t stand a chance, not so much against him, as against Marie’s ghost, played by the outstanding Lásló Kocsis. It really is like watching the living dead. As a man constantly walking on tiptoe he presents a grotesque image anyway, but in a yellowing, off-white dress, with a bleached, deathly, expressionless face and spidery white hair, he presents a truly grotesque image of Marie’s former beautiful self. Time and again her spirit appears, holding on to Hugo from beyond the grave. In a particularly dramatic and powerful scene Hugo even symbolically murders his former wife as he tries to rid himself of her memory, but it is no use.
Lin mixes the dark and dramatic with fun and a sometimes macabre sense of humour, often switching suddenly from one to the other and back again. There are many highlights in the work, but entry and dance of a group of nuns is one of the best. Although the rules of the nunnery define noise as a profanity, they suddenly become caricatures of themselves, and break into an orgy of frenzied talking, laughing and screaming as they discuss the immoral goings on in the city. Then abruptly, the outbreak of noise ceases as suddenly as it came.
Then, fatefully, Hugo meets Mariette (Eszter Kozár), a nightclub dancer. Although he pursues her, the dead Marie cannot be escaped. He sees Mariette as Marie, yet her true self contradicts his memories. She cannot escape her fate. A choir of black demons dance drunkenly about her as if she finds herself in some macabre nightmare. Still watched over by her omnipresent ghost, Hugo forces his dead wife’s dresses on his new love to enhance the resemblance. When she rejects them, the outcome is inevitable. This time murder is real as she meets her gruesome end.
All this takes place on the simplest of sets, which only serves to emphasise Lin’s talent for telling a story or situation. A raised stage within the stage is fronted by a channel of water, no doubt representing the canals of Bruges. To one side a column is covered in white lilies. It is here that we first see the dead Marie, her ghostly figure returning Giselle-like to haunt her lover. A wardrobe slides on and off, a place from which memories appear and retreat, while the religious city of Bruges is represented by nothing more than church bell ropes.
Special mention too for Michael Erhard’s composition for piano, keyboard, clarinet, saxophone, cello, bass and drums, played live with Erhard himself on the keyboards. The expressive score is the perfect accompaniment, swinging violently from the melancholic and sentimental strains of a solo piano, to the jazzy and hectic sounds of the whole band.
“Schwanengesang” has the occasional less intense moments but it is largely gripping stuff that tugs at the emotions. The work is full of unforgettable impressions. Lin even makes us feel sorry for Hugo. She proves that dance theatre does not have to be extreme and can be used to tell a story effectively. Great storytelling, live music, and outstanding performances all round. This dance around death is the sort of thing that gives dance theatre a good name.